Richard speaks to “CTV News at 11:30” anchor Zuraidah Alman about movies in theatres and on VOD to watch this weekend including the Gillian Jacobs college comedy “I Used to Go Here,” the Mick Jagger thriller “The Burnt Orange Heresy” and the biodoc “Howard: The Howard Ashman Story.”
Richard sits in on the CFRA Ottawa morning show with guest host Matt Harris to talk the new movies coming to theatres, VOD and streaming services including the college comedy “I Used to Go Here” starring Gillian Jacobs, the psychological thriller “She Dies Tomorrow,” the crime drama “The Burnt Orange Heresy,” the kid’s fantasy “The Secret Garden” and the biodoc “Howard: The Howard Ashman Story.”
Howard Ashman may not be a household name but the songs he wrote have certainly played in your home. A new documentary on Disney+ about the lyricist behind Disney animated classics like “Aladdin,” “Beauty and The Beast,” “The Little Mermaid” gives insight into the life of an artist whose life was cut short at 39 years.
Using a combination of archival footage, new interviews with the people who knew him best and lots of music, “Howard: The Howard Ashman Story” tells the story of a young boy who let his imagination run wild, creating dioramas with plastic figures and toys, doing shows in his backyard, complete with costumes and props when most kids were still making mud pies. Of a kid who could imitate any actor from any play he ever saw and who became a storyteller, writing musicals while still a teenager.
After college he struggled in NYC before starting his own theatre with a group of like-minded creatives in 1977 called the WPA. It was at this hole-in-the-wall theatre above a seedy donut shop off-off-off Broadway, that he found his calling. While working on a 1979 musical adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s “God Bless You, Mrs. Rosewater,” he discovered his remarkable ability to write lyrics that cut to the heart and soul of whatever story he was telling.
When “God Bless You, Mrs. Rosewater” failed to translate to the Great White Way in a splashy Broadway production he decided to create something with a limited cast but with an attention-grabbing gimmick at the centre. For inspiration he looked to Roger Corman’s cheesy z-grade “Little Shop of Horrors.”
That adaptation was a giant hit but his next project, “Smile,” a flashy Broadway musical about a beauty pageant in Santa Rosa, California, co-written with Marvin Hamlisch, flopped, taking the wind out of his sails.
That’s when Disney Studio Head Jeffrey Katzenberg called, offering Ashman found a new home and creative inspiration. “Animation may be the last great place to do Broadway musicals,” Ashman says in the film.
There, working with composer Alan Menken, he wrote a trio of scores for three classic films that are still beloved today.
At this point in the doc “Howard: The Howard Ashman Story” is a slickly produced biography, mainly told in Ashman’s own words, detailing the creative life of a prolific, perfectionist songwriter.
The film deepens in tone when Ashman’s HIV diagnosis is revealed during the production of “The Little Mermaid.” The day of the diagnosis he did an on-stage interview at New York City’s 92nd Street Y. When asked what his future plans are, he replies that he doesn’t have any. It is a shattering insight into the mindset of a man just handed a death sentence.
Knowing his time was limited, Ashman worked on the three Disney films at the same time, creating a trio of films that would become the bedrock of the Disney Renaissance, while keeping his illness a secret from everyone except life partner Bill Lauch. It’s a heartbreaking illustration of the shared experience of many people with AIDS who struggled to keep their condition a secret for fear of losing work or relationships.
It’s here that director Don Hahn’s decision to not feature talking head interviews becomes clear. The interviews are all done off camera, focusing the story on the subject. You can hear the emotion in the voices of Ashman’s loved ones as they discuss his last years and their words are made all the more powerful by the images of Howard that dress the screen.
“Howard: The Howard Ashman Story” is more than a nostalgic behind-the-scenes doc. It’s a touching portrait of a man, who, like so many gay men of his generation, ran out of time.